Living With Natives To Save A Secret Colombian Language

It took a dozen years for Juan Camilo Niño Vargas to document and create a glossary for a little-known, and unwritten, tongue being threatened with extinction. Now it has a chance to live on.

Living among Colombia's Chimila
Living among Colombia's Chimila
Lisbeth Fog

BOGOTÁ â€" How do you save a language from oblivion? For Colombian anthropologist Juan Camilo Niño Vargas, reviving the language of the Chimila, a native community of 1,500 in northern Colombia, required nothing less than a decade of field work.

The Colombian Culture Ministry has listed 12 native languages in the country as threatened with extinction, including Chimila (Ette Ennaka), also known as "Ette." After 12 years visiting and spending long periods among the Chimila Indians living in the southwestern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Niño now speaks their language and is familiar with their families, foods and customs.

And he has compiled a 732-page glossary of nearly 5,000 expressions and words of the Ette language, with more than 15,000 meanings. His work follows investigations on the Chimila that began about 150 years ago by writers like Jorge Isaacs, and it's part of Niño's own masters and PhD theses completed at Bogotá"s Andes University and EHESS in Paris.

He says his glossary is "nowhere near being a full dictionary" but that it's a "first step to ensure the future of the language."

It wasn't easy work because until very recently Ette had no alphabet or written symbols, unlike many of the country's 65 idioms. "People who speak it cannot write it, because they never have," Niño says. The language has even been kept a secret. When Niño arrived at the reserves set aside for the Chimila, people were reluctant to talk to him.

The Ette or Chimila were a significant group before starting to decline after the Spanish conquest. They hid in forests, which were then cut down and occupied by farmers and oil companies. They then began merging with local peasant populations, working as daily laborers, which led them to stop speaking their own language.

The sounds and pronunciation are very different from Spanish. And the language is not defined by such concepts as subject, verb or sentence structure. For example, "You couldn't ask how a verb is conjugated," Niño says.

His dictionary includes a detailed history of a community that calls itself either New People (Ette takke) or Real People (Ette ennaka), detailed information on vowels and consonants (k, y and w recur a lot), an Ette-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-Ette glossary, and an ample pictorial section with captions of key words and 1,000 names and pictures of animals and plants.

Anthropological patience

The dictionary began with Niño's personal notes. He always kept a notebook at hand to jot down words and data that he would otherwise forget. These were then listed and turned into a systematic record of the language â€" the whole process being comparable to completing a gigantic puzzle. Initially he lived with a Chimila family who then helped him build his own hut, with a mud floor and palm-leaf roof.

"It was a pleasant little studio, really," he says. There was room for his solar chargers, lamps, books, clothes, medicines and notebooks. There was no kitchen or bathroom, so he made a deal with some neighbors for meals, and the jungle was his restroom. His working day lasted from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., the hours that there was sunlight. He said he would spend some days working on the language, sitting and talking to people. "Other days I would do a population count, going to all the settlements and gathering information on household units," he says. "Other days I would go into the forest to take plant samples, which tells you how they perceive nature. Some days I'd just rest in a hammock."

Niño also helped with daily tasks such as cooking or getting water, which gave him another opportunity to talk to the women. Conversation was virtually constant, though he admits that there are still words he doesn't fully understand, and which he left out of his glossary.

Statue of an indigenous tribesman in Valledupar, northeastern Colombia â€" Photo: F3rn4nd0/GFDL

The routine has changed Niño's perspective on the country. He saw things in Colombia he had never seen before, not even in his grandfather's expansive personal library.

The Ette "pay little attention to material things, and that changed my life," Niño says. He has no mobile phone now. "I'm still great friends with many of them. I hope in coming years I can give them more than they gave me."

Myths of the Ette

Niño recorded the long stories he heard among the Ette, and he found that elders used a more sophisticated language when discussing myths and legends. "The systematic position has been that the Ette have no myths, yet I was surprised to find they had so many stories," he says. "They are simple tales with very profound meanings."

And their mythology shows a different view of the world. "There is no creation for them, but more a process of transformation," Niño explains. "The world has always existed but changes constantly. They believe the world destroys and recreates itself at intervals. They think they are a very young people and their grandparents were the first to inhabit the present-day community."

The Ette believe that humans turn into animals, so their hunting stories often convey both their respect for animals, and fear of committing cannibalism when eating meat, which they do nevertheless. Other stories Niño heard were more "classical" â€" involving flight, cosmic travels and constellations.


Niño is not the first scholar to study the Chimila. In the early 1880s, Jorge Isaacs included them in his Study of the Indigenous Tribes of the State of Magdalena, which he wrote while exploring northern Colombia by river. Others who worked on deciphering the language were anthropologists Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and María Trillos Amaya.

In contrast with Isaacs, who was derided for his book at the time as a "Darwinist and a Jew," Niño has received praise from his supervising professor and a prize from the Culture Ministry for strengthening one of the country's threatened native languages.

The Ette now use his glossary as the core of a curriculum, and Niño has already created a four-member Ette working group to formulate a school program. He says the same work must be done now for other native Colombian languages. "We have to create a big library not just of dictionaries, but also of the grammar and mythology of indigenous languages," he says "If we don't hurry, there will be consequences."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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